Next Monday, acting head of the National Security Council Brig. Gen. Jacob Nagel will sit down with his US counterpart Susan Rice and try to conclude negotiations about a new, multi-year defense assistance package.
We must all hope that he fails.
No clear Israeli interest will be advanced by concluding the aid deal presently on the table. Indeed, the deal now being discussed will cause Israel massive, long-term economic and strategic damage. This is true for a number of reasons.
First there is the issue of the deal’s impact on Israel’s domestic military industries, which are the backbone of Israel’s strategic independence.
Under the current defense package, which is set to expire next year, a quarter of the US aid Israel receives is converted to shekels and spent domestically. Reportedly, the deal now under negotiation will bar Israel from using any of the funds domestically. The implications for our domestic military industries are dire. Not only will thousands of Israeli workers lose their jobs. Israel’s capacity to develop its own weapons systems will be dangerously diminished.
Then there is the problem of joint projects. Today, Israel receives additional US funds to develop joint projects, including Iron Dome and David’s Sling short range missile and rocket defense programs. These programs were undertaken in response to threats that weren’t foreseen when the current deal was negotiated a decade ago.
According to reports, the deal now being negotiated denies Israel and the US the ability to fund jointly new projects or to provide supplemental funding for existing projects. All funding for all projects will be covered by the lump sum that is currently being negotiated.
Not only does this preclude new projects, it prevents Congress from exercising oversight over administration funding of existing joint projects with Israel. President Barack Obama has consistently tried to slash funding of missile defense programs only to be overridden by Congress. Under the deal now on the table, Congress will be denied the power to override a hostile administration.
Given the obvious problems with the aid program currently being proposed by the Obama Administration, there’s little wonder that until now, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has publicly stated that if necessary, Israel is ready to wait for the next administration. Some argue that Netanyahu’s apparent newfound interest in concluding negotiations on Obama’s terms owes to his fear that this is the best offer Israel is likely to get. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump for various reasons, it is argued, will be less likely to offer significant increases in US military assistance.
Assuming this is accurate, the question becomes whether Israel has an interest in the assistance itself.
And so we come to the F-35.
For Israel, to a significant degree, the aid package on offer is about the F-35, the US’s fourth generation fighter, otherwise known as the Joint Strike Fighter.
Last month Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IAF Chief of Staff Brig. Gen Tal Kelman flew to Texas to ceremonially “take possession” of Israel’s first two F-35s. Both aircraft are currently set to be delivered to Israel in December.
To date, the IAF has purchased 33 F-35s – all with US aid money. The IAF wants to purchase a total of 75 F-35s, which are supposed to replace both the F-16s and the F-15s that the IAF currently fields.
As Liberman made clear during his visit, whether Israel purchases them or not is entirely dependent on the aid deal.
We should not take them. We should walk away. And we should walk away even if we receive nothing in exchange for the planes we reject.
The F-35 is a disaster of epic proportions, for the US first and foremost. If Israel agrees to base its next generation fighters on the F-35, it will be a disaster for us as well. Although it is late in the game, we need to cut our losses.
To date, the F-35 has cost the US $400 billion. That is twice what it was supposed to cost. The project is already four years behind schedule and still in development. It won’t be operational until May 2018 – at the earliest.
The F-35 is a jet that was developed by a committee and tasked with doing everything. So it isn’t surprising that it doesn’t work. In February, J. Michael Gilmore, the Director of the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation office submitted a scathing report to Congress on the F-35 program. It is worth going through just a few of his findings.
The F-35’s calling card is its stealth capacity. According to the engineers at Lockheed Martin, the JSF is supposed to be all-but-invisible to radar systems. Its stealth system is supposed to be far superior to the stealth capabilities of its third generation predecessors.
But at present, its stealth systems do not work, and it is unclear whether they will ever work as planned.
First there is the problem with the JSF’s cooling systems. The JSF is too hot. To prevent its single engine from melting down in flight, pilots are forced to open its weapons bays at high speeds and altitudes every ten minutes. When the weapons bays are open, the stealth systems do not work.
Then there is the software. The F-35 is considered one big flying computer. It uses over 20 million lines of computer code. These codes are supposed to make it the most maneuverable and stealthy aircraft in history. The problem is that the codes are defective. The software programs that enable the plane to fly, maneuver, and engage in combat are all defective. So are the software programs that control the plane’s stealth capabilities. And fixing them is not a simple process.
The fixed software systems can’t simply be attached to existing hardware – or existing planes. The planes themselves have to be rebuilt to adjust to the new software. So the models that have already been produced, including the two F-35s that are set for delivery in December, will all have to be rebuilt before they will be combat ready.
And as a panel of US defense and aviation experts that convened in late February following the publication of Gilmore’s report noted, that too will take time and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Another major problem is that the F-35’s nerve center is disfunctional and there is no clear path to fixing it. The F-35 is controlled by the Autonomic Logistics Information System. The ALIS is a central computer system, located in the US. All F-35s all over the world will be required to log into the ALIS system to upload computer files after each flight and to check flight readiness. The ALIS is supposed to identify broken parts and help speed up repairs and handle mission data uploads.
ALIS has the capacity to prevent F-35s from taking off. ALIS can lock out pilots and ground crews if it sees danger. If this happens, maintenance technicians have to convince the computer that they either dealt with the issues the computer identified or that it was a false alarm.
Dan Grazier, a member of that panel, whose deliberations were reported by This Week, warned that this power renders the entire F-35 fleet vulnerable to hostile hackers. If someone were able to convince the computer that something was wrong across the fleet, they might be able to keep all the F-35s grounded. Although the damage wouldn’t be permanent, it could continue long enough to cause the US or an ally to lose a battle or fail a mission.
For Israel, this vulnerability is prohibitive even if ALIS is ever made to work. The significance of ALIS control over all F-35s worldwide is that the US — and anyone able to hack the US system — will control the IAF. It will operate at the pleasure of the US government, and those able to hack US computers. They will be able to ground IAF planes whenever they wish.
This critical problem was acknowledged obliquely by Lt. Col. Yotam, the commander of Israel’s first F-35 or Adir squadron in an interview with Israel Defense in April.
LTC Yotam said, “The maintenance concept of the Adir is based on international management and logistics in terms of spare parts and maintenance echelons.”
Israeli experts note that although in theory Israel will be able to crack the ALIS code and override it, it will take years to develop such a capacity. In the meantime, the IAF will become a contract employee of the US government that’s operation is subject to US approval on a flight by flight basis.
The US Air Force, Marines and Navy are all trying to figure out how to deal with the deficiencies of the F-35. There is a vague hope that the US will develop a different fourth generation fighter. More F-18s and A-10s will likely be ordered. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work told Fighting Global that he foresees using the current batch of F-15s into the 2040s. In other words, the US Air Force will deploy 70 year old planes alongside the defective F-35s.
This, of course, is a disaster for the US. And if Israel goes ahead with the F-35 project it will be an even bigger disaster for us.
Back when the Pentagon convinced the Shamir government to scrap the Lavi project and purchase the F-16, the argument that won the day was economic. The Lavi was simply too expensive.
Today, both economics and strategic arguments indicate that the opposite is the case, even if walking away involves ending US military aid.
If Israel cuts its losses and begins to develop a fourth generation jet fighter that meets its own specific needs, rather than one designed by a committee to meet other couantries’ needs poorly, it will end up both far safer and far more prosperous than if it goes ahead with the F-35 project. It will produce a better plane, better suited for Israeli defense needs, and simultaneously stimulate the growth of Israeli military industries, providing jobs for thousands of Israelis.
If Israel walks away from the current military assistance package under discussion, it will be in a position to sign joint development deals with the US and other governments on a project by project basis and so ensure that we develop the weapons systems we need, not the ones the US thinks we should have, as we need them. Just as India is investing billions of dollars in joint projects with Israel, so will the US in the future.
It is far from clear that the US can afford its $400 billion white elephant. It is abundantly clear that Israel cannot afford it.
Whether or not a Trump or Clinton administration will be more forthcoming is really beside the point. The point is that the US aid deal is really a deal for Lockheed Martin, not for Israel. And we need to say no.